“And now that the neighborhood has become a bastion of wealth, some current residents and housing rights activists question what preservationists are trying to protect.” – New York Times, April 4, 2021. “Does SoHo, Haven for Art and Wealth, Have Room for Affordable Housing?”
Preservationists are trying to protect the unique qualities that led the City to designate SoHo as a historic district in 1973. It contains some of the most interesting samples of post-Civil War commercial construction in New York, and a collection of well-preserved cast-iron structures “unrivaled in the world.” Most of SoHo and NoHo are now historic districts.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report for SoHo mentions that artists rejuvenated the area. But there is no mention of who should live there or what they should pay. It’s about the buildings. They helped SoHo/NoHo become a global destination attracting artists, businesses, residents, retail, and tourists. And, as is obvious, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has always allowed new construction.
The New York Times story has flawed assumptions.
In the more than two years the Conservancy has been involved in possible SoHo/NoHo upzoning, no one has spoken against affordable housing. But residents and business owners alike said protecting the historic character of the area is important. The City’s upzoning plan could double the height of buildings throughout the historic districts but loopholes will allow developers to avoid affordable housing. Most affordable units would likely be created in the areas outside the historic district. As the Times stated, the City has not defined what “affordable” means and residents would be chosen by lottery. It will take three market-rate units to generate one “affordable” unit. Market rate luxury housing will still predominate. Even some groups dedicated to affordable housing have suggested it could be achieved with more modest zoning changes.
The Times noted that the pandemic has caused empty office buildings, closed businesses, and falling revenue. That’s why protecting the historic character that allowed SoHo/NoHo businesses to thrive should matter. Instead, the story said, “Any new construction could be a welcome gift to offset these burdens.” No. Not all construction projects are beneficial. If SoHo and NoHo are overrun with glass towers, something valuable will be lost forever.
There should be zoning changes to make it legal to live in SoHo/NoHo and easier for retailers to operate. But there is no need to damage the area’s historic character to achieve affordable housing. As a mixed-use area, residents have longstanding concerns about numerous quality of life issues. Elected officials have stated they want to protect artists and the artistic character of the neighborhood. None of this has been resolved.
The cast-iron buildings of SoHo and NoHo are a brand that represents New York in the minds of people around the world. The City should look for ways to enhance that character, protect existing affordable housing and address real concerns about the future of retail space and commercial properties. The upzoning ignores all of these issues.